October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a time when it seems you hear about breast cancer everywhere you turn. Pro football teams play their October games wearing pink shoelaces and cleats, chin straps, wristbands, and helmet decals. Even the game balls have pink ribbon decals.
The public relations campaign to get us thinking about breast cancer has been quite effective. But with all the attention to the issue, most are still not aware that men can, and do, get breast cancer. I say this from first-hand experience. In June 2010, after a seven-mile run near my home in Anderson, Indiana, I noticed a swelling in my left breast, and, when I massaged it, I felt a palpable lump.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I was concerned enough to have it checked by a surgeon I’d seen a year before for a minor procedure. When I arrived at his office two weeks later, I showed him the swelling and he did a fine needle aspiration (biopsy) of the lump right on the spot.
An hour later, the report came back. I’d tested positive for breast cancer. I was still in his office, stunned, as he informed me, “For men, there’s really only one option—a complete mastectomy.”
Feeling numb, I said “OK” and scheduled the surgery for four days later. Then I had to go home and tell my wife, Elise, whom I had not told about the lump or the doctor’s visit because I hadn’t wanted her to worry.
At the appointed time, the surgeon removed my entire left breast. He also took four lymph nodes. Afterward he biopsied the nodes to see if the cancer had spread. The test came back positive for one of the nodes. Not a good sign. The surgeon told me that because he’d found cancer in that first node, it was very likely that the cancer had traveled elsewhere in my body.
Up until then, stunned though I was, I hadn’t worried too much. Now, it was different. I started thinking about dying. I began reading everything I could about breast cancer. One of the first stories I found online was about a 28-year-old British man who died after a four-year battle with breast cancer. And here I was, in my 60s. But, I reminded myself, I was quite healthy. I have been a runner all my adult life. I’d quit smoking 18 years earlier. I rarely drank alcohol.
I ate nutritious foods almost all the time. Plus, there was no history of breast cancer in my long-lived family, which included two older sisters and my 92-year-old mother never had cancer.
I returned to the hospital for surgery two weeks later, this time to remove nine more lymph nodes. About a week later, I went with Elise to the doctor’s office to learn the biopsy results. I felt very nervous as we awaited the verdict.
Amazingly, all nine lymph nodes tested negative. Elise and I both found ourselves weeping tears of joy. It was like having a death sentence commuted.
The follow-up treatment wasn’t so terribly bad, all things considered. I made it through 49 chemotherapy and radiation treatments over the next eight months. Throughout that period, I never experienced fatigue, nausea, or missed a day of work. My oncologist told me I was lucky; only about 10 percent of his patients breeze through treatment with so few side effects. Yes, I lost my hair and my fingernails, and I had some digestive problems, but I was indeed lucky.
I like to think some of my success with the treatment has to do with three decisions I made early on. First, I decided to be candid about my cancer and discuss it with anyone who was interested. Second, after reading the excellent Life Over Cancer: The Block Center Program for Integrative Cancer Treatment by Keith Block, M.D., a Chicago oncologist, I decided to eliminate red meat and dairy products from my diet. Block points out that the Japanese, for example, have significantly lower rates of cancer than Americans and eat significantly higher amounts of seafood. Summarizing several studies, The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine at cancerproject.org concludes, “Even within Japan, affluent women who eat meat daily have an 8.5 times higher risk of breast cancer than poorer women who rarely or never eat meat.”
I began eating broiled or baked fish six or seven days a week combined with lots of beans, fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts. I also started taking whey protein, flaxseed, and fish oil supplements.
Although some oncologists advise against strenuous exercise during chemotherapy, my third decision was to continue running and weightlifting, something I had been doing for more than 25 years. Block says, “My own clinical experience … has repeatedly confirmed the therapeutic benefits of exercise for people with cancer. Even walking … for three to five hours a week is correlated with a 50 percent decline in mortality from breast cancer.”
There’s also something else—a strong foundation of spiritual support. In his book, Block encourages meditation, spiritual disciplines, and connection with a loving community or support group. I try to spend time every morning in prayer, meditation, and reading the Psalms and other Bible passages. I know I could not have survived my year of treatment so easily without my faith and dozens of supportive friends in our a loving congregation at at St. George Orthodox Christian Church in Fishers, Indiana. And Elise’s prayers, cheerful outlook, and daily encouragement also made a tremendous difference.
When the treatment phase came to an end, I celebrated by running the Indianapolis 500 Festival Mini-Marathon, the largest 13-mile race in the country. At 7:30 a.m. on May 7, 2011, nine days after I finished radiation treatments, we were off. When I finished three hours and 28 minutes later, I ranked 26,307th out of 35,000 runners. Of course, I didn’t care where I placed. I was a winner. I ran another half marathon in October 2012 and, as you read this, I will be running another one. I plan to complete at least one half marathon a year for as long as I am able. As Robert Frost wrote, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”
Related: Men and Breast Cancer: The Facts